Ruthless attacks in Jaranwala, Pakistan, in August left churches gutted and Christian homes burnt down, writes Laura Hayes.
Chistians in the Pakistan city of Jaranwala are still coming to terms with a series of devastating attacks on homes and churches in August. News of the riots quickly spread around the world.
According to Morning Star News (MSN), the rioting began after Muslim residents of Cinema Chowk in Jaranwala, Faisalabad District, accused Umar Saleem, known as Rocky, of desecrating pages of the Koran and writing blasphemous comments.
A relative said Rocky was leaving for work when he saw a piece of paper with something written in red ink pasted on the door of a Muslim neighbour.
‘When he went closer to read it, he was shocked to see a photograph of him and his younger brother Umair, alias Raja, pasted on top of the page,’ the relative told MSN. ‘Beneath the page were some partially burnt pages of the Koran inscribed with derogatory remarks about Islam and Mohammed.’
The source said Rocky, father of a three-month-old son, panicked and removed the pages from the door. As if on cue, two Muslims pounced on him and snatched the pages, accusing him of blasphemy.
‘The allegation is ridiculous – who would name himself and his brother as the writers of the note and also put their photo on it?’ the relative said. ‘Someone has framed them to exact revenge.’
Rocky, aged 24, works as a cleaner at a textile factory, while Raja, 21, works at a local government school. They are both members of a Full Gospel Assemblies Church.
A case was registered against the two Christians under Sections 295-B and 295-C of the blasphemy statutes. Section 295-B relates to desecration of the Koran and carries a punishment of life in prison. Section 295-C relates to insulting Mohammed and is punishable by death.
Thousands of Muslims, led by local leaders of Islamist extremist parties Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Movement, launched attacks on churches and homes of Christians in the area.
‘Over 20 churches, more than 200 homes and shops, and several vehicles were burnt and destroyed by the mobs,’ area evangelist Imran Bhatti said.
Bhatti was one of the few Christians who stayed behind while hundreds of others fled their homes as soon as they heard announcements from mosques calling on Muslims to protest against the alleged blasphemy.
More than 5,000 Christians live in Jaranwala, most of them sanitary workers on meagre wages who occupy cramped homes.
‘The mobs not only burned and looted our churches and homes, they also vandalised our graveyard and the office of the assistant commissioner, who is also a Christian,’ Bhatti told MSN.
Kamran Bashir, a 55-year-old Christian, was one of those forced to flee.
‘They broke the windows, doors and took out fridges, sofas, chairs and other household items to pile them up in front of the church to be burned,’ he said. ‘They also burned and desecrated Bibles; they were ruthless.’
Videos on social media show protesters destroying Christian possessions while police appear to look on.
A mother identified only as Nasreen fled with her four children. ‘We just left without dressing,’ she told MSN. ‘We picked up our children and just ran.’
Nasreen and her family were among several people who spent the hot and humid night in fields. She added that there were also girls and women who lay flat on the roofs of their homes in scorching heat to hide from vandals setting fire to their belongings in the street.
According to Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP) 19 churches were completely gutted by the attacks and destroyed. Two further churches were damaged along with community halls and prayer rooms. More than 400 houses were affected.
The report stated that more than 10,000 Christians had hid in sugar cane and other fields during the first nights of attack.
Release International partners Lahore Evangelical Ministries (LEM) were among the first to visit the area.
Rev Waseem Khokhar of LEM said there had been an announcement over mosque loudspeakers in the Jaranwala district of Faisalabad early on August 16 that torn pages of the Muslim holy book were lying in the street of the Christian town.
‘So, all Muslims were encouraged to gather and attack the Christian town of 350 houses, and to protest against the insult.
‘A mob of around a thousand people got together and attacked the town. Very sadly, within a couple of hours five main churches and 40 Christian houses were burnt down.
‘Praise God that there were no injuries or deaths of any Christians because, after the announcement, they managed to flee from their town and left everything behind to save their lives. They hid themselves at different places in the fields nearby.’
(Pictured: Homes and churches destroyed in the attack. Courtesy: Aid to the Church in Need/Rev Iftikhar Indryas)
BBC Urdu reported: ‘Amir Mir, the information minister for Punjab province, condemned the alleged blasphemy and said in a statement that thousands of police had been sent to the area, with dozens of people detained.’
Church of Pakistan bishop Azad Marshall said the Christian community was ‘deeply pained and distressed’ by the events.
‘We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice, to intervene immediately and assure us that our lives are valuable in our own homeland,’ he posted on X (formerly Twitter).
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